Dorthe Nors: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal – Spejl, Skoulder, Blink (2016) Danish Literature

Dorthe Nors is a Danish writer who has written novels, novellas, and short stories. Her short stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Boston Review, and The New Yorker. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize last year. Several of her books have been translated.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal tells the story of Sonja, a single woman in her forties, who lives in Copenhagen and wants nothing more than learning to drive. It seems such a modest wish but for Sonja, who suffers from positional vertigo, it’s huge. The doctor actually told her she cannot learn how to drive but here she is anyway, getting driving lessons and failing miserably. Not because of the vertigo but because she just can’t figure out how to change gear. In itself, even though she urgently wants to learn to drive, this wouldn’t be so dramatic but there’s so much more that doesn’t really work in Sonja’s life that the failed driving lessons take on gigantic proportions.

Sonja moved to Copenhagen from rural Jutland. She’s the first of her family to study and after getting her degree in literature she moves to the exciting big city where she works as a translator of Swedish crime writer Gösta Svensson’s bloody serial killer novels. Not exactly the life she’d expected but then again what life did Sonja expect? That’s the question that not only Sonja asks herself during the course of this novel but also the reader. Sonja is the kind of character many readers seem to hate. She’s almost anachronistic in her failure to figure out what she wants and then go and get it. Because she is in many ways weak, people take advantage of her. Strangers and friends alike. Most people see her as someone they can use to talk endlessly about themselves, to show off, to bully, to patronise or, as her newest driving instructor, to have an affair with.

Sonja knows that her life is off its rails and she knows she’s missing direction but she can’t figure out how to get out of this mess other than to daydream or think about the past.

I was so not sure whether I liked this book or not until I read the last pages and everything came together. The ending was so sad, moving, and poignant that I ended up really liking this novel and it’s passive, at times annoying protagonist.

Everybody wants to read about strong, assertive characters and, of course, that’s inspiring but there’s so much truth in Sonja. I’m sure there’s so much hidden human misery in every big city, certainly also in small cities, that I found this story of a woman who had big dreams but ended up lonely and miserable very touching. It takes a special kind of character to survive in big, cold cities, especially when you were born elsewhere. And not everyone is capable of forming meaningful relationships, not everyone has the knack to be socially integrated. I’m very glad that Dorthe Nors chose to write about a quiet character whose struggles go unnoticed by those who surround her. At first even Sonja herself doesn’t notice. Only when she realises all of her struggles are futile does it dawn on her.

This could have been a sad and depressing story but it’s not because there are many funny moments. Sonja may not see herself as clearly as she should at first but she sees others all the more clearly. She has no illusions about those around her and her observations are often funny and laconic. There are the scenes with her massage therapist who also wants her to join her meditation group that are absolutely priceless.

As I said, there were moments when I wasn’t too sure about this book but in the end I liked the book and its old-fashioned heroine very much.

Maggie O’Farrell: Instructions For a Heatwave (2013)

I’m so behind with book reviews that it’s highly unlikely, I’ll ever catch up. This would have been one of many I was going to put aside “for later”, but the title’s too fitting to postpone reviewing it. And it was enjoyable.

The heatwave of the title refers to the heatwave of 1976, one of the worst the UK has ever seen. I don’t know anyone who was alive back then, no matter how small, who wouldn’t remember it. While it’s possibly as hot now as it was then, the heat started earlier, I think, in June and there were massive water shortages. Let’s hope that it won’t come to that. Although it looks dire already. “Over here”, where I live, Continental Europe, it’s even hotter. And, just like in the UK, we have no air conditioning. In Switzerland it’s even forbidden to have them in your own home. Small ones, yes, but they don’t help much. Before diving into the review, let me moan some more – yesterday, the thermometer in our flat showed 35°! Only two degrees less than outside. Sleeping, you wonder? Not so much. My poor cats crawl into dark corners, hoping dark means cool and stay there until the evening. Normally, they run around all day. Unfortunately, he’s afraid of the fan, while she enjoys it

Now on to Maggie O’Farrell. As I mentioned already, Instructions For a Heatwave is set in 1976 during the heatwave and tells the story of the Riordan family. One morning, the dad, Robert Riordan, leaves the house and doesn’t come back. His wife Gretta is shocked and flustered. She calls her children hoping they will come and help her. Already the first phone calls show the family dynamics. There are misunderstandings, half-truths, accusations, exaggerations, tensions. And the three children are facing troubles of their own, that are now, through this family emergency, magnified. At the same time, the emergency shows how frail their family bonds are, how dysfunctional. Gretta is a hypochondriac. She changes subjects when she feels she doesn’t want to talk about something and that is often. She pops pills, makes stuff up and has her kids constantly on alert. Some of the reasons for her behaviour will be revealed later.

Michael Francis is the oldest sibling and in the middle of his own family crisis. It may very well be that his wife, who is reinventing herself, will leave him. He’s not entirely without fault though. Monica, the first daughter, married for the second time, is also doubtful about the future of her marriage. And Aoife, the youngest, is in New York, trying desperately to hold on to a life she loves but that is threatened because it’s built on a lie – nobody knows that she’s a functional illiterate.

When they hear of their dad’s disappearance they all return home. At first, the reunion is frosty and awkward. There are too many things that have been left unsaid in the past and too many family secrets. The biggest is the reason for their dads’ disappearance.

It will take them a few days to sort some things out and then they take a family trip to Ireland, where the parents originally come from.

Instructions for a Heatwave is in many ways an astonishing book. It’s so intricately told, the stories are so tightly interwoven that I was constantly wondering – how did she do that? She moves in out of characters’ minds, switches from the present to the past and back again, but it’s never confusing because it’s so well done.

This is the story of a dysfunctional family but one with hope. They do not give up on each other nor on themselves. Gretta was possibly my favourite character although she reminded me of my late mother (minus my mother’s meanness that is). It’s fascinating to see a character description that resonates so much. Just like Gretta, my mother would always change the subject if she didn’t want to talk about something, pretending she hadn’t heard what had been said and then pretending she had an attack of something (cough, sickness, stomach cramps, “nerves”) and urgently needed her pills. Also, like Gretta, she would start chatting with anyone, finding out family stories and other people’s secrets without ever revealing any of her own. Since the Riordan’s are Irish and Catholics, that was something I could relate to as well. Looking back, it was no fun being brought up by a Catholic mother – my dad was anti-clerical, so that balanced things out a bit.

While this book resonated a lot with me because of my own history, I still think anyone who loves complex family stories would like this very much. In the past, I had mixed experiences with Maggie O’Farrell. I loved The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, but didn’t care for another one of her books (I think it was After You’d Gone). This rich and lovely novel has put me in the mood to read more by her. Her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am is already on my piles.

Paris in July 2018 – Willy Ronis’ Cats – Les Chats de Willy Ronis

I always try to participate in Thyme for Tea’s Paris in July event but I don’t always get the time. This year, time was just as scarce and so I was glad the event has been extended. I decided to participate with a beautiful book I discovered a while ago in a book shop: Les chats – The Cats by Willy Ronis.

The book has not been translated but since there’s only a short intro and the rest are photos, any cat or photography lover could enjoy this.

Willy Ronis, who lived from 1910 to 2009, was a French photographer who was famous for his post-war pictures of some of the lesser known Parisian districts like Ménilmontant and Belleville. Together with Brassaï, Doisneau, and Cartier-Bresson, he is one of the most important French photographers of his time, and by many called the most important Paris photographer.

Ronis was also known for his nudes, one of which you can see below, and for his love of cats. His cat photos have such a special charm. They come in so many variations. Close-up photos of his own cats, cats in landscapes, cats he saw on travels. All of his photos are black and white. They are simple and effortless, but when you look at them for a while you discover many charming details and you simply have to admire his compositions and his use of light and shadow.

The nude above, which shows his wife, is one of his most famous photos. I guess that’s why it was included in the picture although there’s no cat on it. The book also offers an intimate look at his family life. Many of the photos show his wife and son, together with a cat.

After the war, Ronis lived and taught  in the South of France, that’s why there are many photos in the book that haven’t been taken in Paris.

I’m sure this is a book that would appeal to many people, whether they love cats or photography. His delicate use of light and shadow alone transforms every picture into a work of art.

Here’s an interesting article from April 2018 in the New York Times about Ronis.

And there’s an exhibition of his work at the Pavillon Carré de Baudoin, which lasts until September.

Susan Hill: The Shadows in the Street (2010) Simon Serrailler 5

I read and reviewed several of Susan Hills books; her WWI novel Strange Meeting, the ghost stories The Woman in Black and The Small Hand, the memoir Howard’s End is on the Landing and recently – not reviewed – Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. I enjoyed them all. What I hadn’t tried yet, was her Simon Serrailler crime series. I can’t remember why I didn’t buy the first in the series but the fifth, I only know I bought it when it was published in 2010 – one of many pointless hardback purchases. Luckily, although it took me seven years to get to it, the novel was a very pleasant surprise.

The Shadows in the Street is set in Lafferton, a fiction cathedral town in Southern England. It opens from the point of view of one of the POV characters, Leslie Blade, a single librarian who lives with his elderly mother. In the evenings, Leslie often visists the young prostitutes of Lafferton and brings them tea and sandwiches. From his point of view the book switches to Abi, one of the young prostitutes the book focuses on. When one of Abi’s colleagues is brutally murdered, Leslie’s quickly one of the main suspects. We’re then introduced to Cat, Simon’s sister, who lost her husband. She’s the council doctor and active in the church and the church choir. The next characters we are introduced to are two young police officers, one who is new on the force and only came to Lafferton because of Simon Serrailler. Simon too makes an appearance but not “on the scene”, but in Scotland, where’s he’s on a holiday. After the first young woman is murdered, another one follows and a third, not a prostitute this time, disappears. And finally, Serrailler, returns to Lafferton.

In many ways The Shadows in the Streets is a peculiar crime novel. It’s part of the series featuring DC Simon Serrailler. Naturally, one would expect a police procedural but that’s not really what this is. It’s a mix between that and a psychological thriller. And one would expect that the main protagonist would be present from the beginning, but he’s absent for almost half of the book. There’s good reason for that – he’s on a holiday, recovering from his last case. While that may be different in other novels, I’m pretty sure many of the other elements are not. As crime novels go, this was one of the more diverse ones I’ve read. It’s written from many different POVs, including that of the perpetrator, but never giving away his identity. I like that. It’s become a staple of recent psychological thrillers to switch POV mid-way through the book and thus reveal the identity of the killer, which I hate. So many of my recent reads have been ruined because of that – last case in point Lisa Jewell’s Then She Was Gone. The Shadow in the Street takes time to introduce us to most of the characters, which gives the book a larger scope and transcends the genre. One can read this like a crime novel or a social commentary. It works well both ways. Clearly, Susan Hill felt strongly about the topic of prostitution and what society could or should do to help the women get out of this occupation. Introducing us to different characters, she paints different portraits, shows the despair, the struggle. Sometimes on both sides. There are well-meaning people who want to help – social workers, doctors, clergy – but they mostly fail.

While Simon Serrailler isn’t present in the beginning of the book, we still get to know him  very well. He’s definitely the kind of investigator I like. A bit of a loner, unpredictable, doing things his way, not following strict orders or procedures. In his spare time he paints. He’s so talented that he could become a full-time painter but he loves to do two very different things. I can definitely relate to that.

As far as crime novels go, this isn’t the tightest but I didn’t mind because I enjoyed reading it. There’s suspense and the ending is not obvious, but at the same time it has a leisurely pace and takes a lot of time to show the characters and explore its main theme – prostitution. Susan Hill is famous for her ghost stories. Ghost stories need strong atmosphere and since she excels in the genre, it’s not surprising that this book is atmospheric too.

This isn’t going to be my last Simon Serrailler. I’m very tempted to go back to the beginning and read the first very soon. Susan Hill’s a skilful story-teller and this series is a great addition to the genre.

#LiveFromSofia – A Short Story Collection by Alexander Shpatov

I just reviewed Alexander Shpatov’s fascinating short story collection #LiveFromSofia for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth hosted by the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative. If you’d like to read it – here’s the review. The site is well worth checking out, especially if, like me, you’re not very familiar with Bulgarian literature.

Amélie Nothomb – Barbe Bleue – Blue Beard (2012)

In 1992, Belgian author Amélie Nothomb entered the literary scene with a bang. Her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin – L’hygiène de l’assassin, was so successful, that to this day, it’s always the one novel mentioned together with her name. One could almost assume that she has not written anything else. One couldn’t be more wrong. Since 1992 she has published a novel per year. I read her first and wasn’t too keen on it, so I never returned to her until I saw Barbe Bleue (Blue Beard) in a book shop. I love fairy tale retellings or reinterpretations and Blue Beard is one of my favourites. Knowing that she’s famous for her dry, acerbic style, I thought it would be interesting to see what she would do with a tale like this. I was pretty sure, it wouldn’t be fantasy or fantastical and I was right. I had hoped I would like it, but I didn’t expect to like it so much. It’s clever, witty, and whimsical.

Saturnine, a young lecturer at the school of the Louvre in Paris, is looking for a room. When she sees and ad offering rooms in an elegant mansion in the 7th arrondissement, she’s thrilled. The rooms are big, the rent is cheap, what more could she wish for? Of course, she’s not the only one interested in the offer. The place is swarming with women. As Saturnine finds out to her surprise, most of them didn’t come for the rooms, but because they want to catch a glimpse of the rich, notorious owner. All of his eight former tenants have vanished and it is rumoured that he may have killed them. Because Saturnine is from Belgium, she had never heard of the story before. One of the women, applying with Saturnine, predicts that she will be the chosen one as she’s the youngest and the prettiest. And she’s right.

When Saturnine sees the host for the first time she’s totally underwhelmed. He’s not very attractive and full of mannerisms. He’s a Spanish nobleman with a long, flourishing name. Don Elemirio is very proud of his origins and of himself. He shows her around and tells her she can go anywhere she likes with the exception of one room with a black door. He warns her that it wouldn’t be dangerous for her if she entered.

Saturnine isn’t a nosy person and so she’s never tempted to open the door to the forbidden room, but she would like to know what happened to her eighth predecessors.

On the first evening, her host begs her to join him for dinner. She accepts and this will be the first of many dinners. They are all eccentric and downed with large amounts of the most expensive champagne. During these meals, Saturnine teases the nobleman but he doesn’t really get it. He stays serious and finally confesses he’s in love with her. Saturnine is shocked that someone could fall in love so quickly and very certain that she will never love him back. Soon, however, it becomes clear that the mysterious and many talented Don Elemirio fascinates her.

If you’d like to find if she falls for him, and whether or not she’ll access the forbidden room and what happened to the eight women before her, you’ll have to read the book.

To tell this whimsical retelling of the famous Blue Beard fairy tale, Amélie Nothomb uses mainly dialogue. There are only few descriptions and some of Saturnine’s reasonings added. The result is very lively as the discussions are so witty and original and touch upon subjects as diverse as the Spanish Inquisition, Ramon Llull’s Ars Magna, and the perfect color. Saturnine is anything if not feisty. Any other woman would have fled the premises. While she teases, questions, and criticizes the nobleman, he shows her a world of idealism and perfectionism that’s as far from our world as could be.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a clever reinterpretation of an old tale. Since it’s so dialogue heavy, I could imagine it would make a wonderful play.

Most of Amélie Nothomb’s books have been translated into English, but not this one.

I’ll be reading another of Amélie Nothomb’s books bery soon. After having read a few rave reviews I got Les CatilinairesThe Stranger Next Door.

Have you read any of Nothomb’s books. Which ones would you recommend?

Nicci French: Sunday Morning Coming Down (Frieda Klein 7)

Those who know this blog, know how much I like the writer duo Nicci French. The standalone novels as much as the Frieda Klein series. While I don’t think I’ve read any standalone titles that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, there have been hits and misses in the Frieda Klein series. Because the hits are usually so great, I forgive them their misses and just hope for the best, when I start a new title. Luckily, this seventh instalment is an absolute winner. It’s one of the best of the series. Maybe we get a little less of Frieda Klein herself, but we get a lot of suspense instead.

Book number 6 has ended on a major cliff hanger and, so, book 7 begins where that one ended – Frieda finds a dead body in her house. And now I already don’t know what else to say because everything can potentially spoil one of the earlier books. Tricky. Let’s just say that someone who has played a major role in all of the novels has left the dead man in Frieda’s house as a sign or a warning. Unfortunately, the police aren’t convinced that this person is still alive. This makes it even more difficult for Frieda. Not only has her sacred haven been violated, but the police think she’s a bit nuts. And, on top of that, all of her friends and family are in danger. The police aren’t too keen on letting Frieda help with the investigation. It takes violence and another dead body until she’s involved. While the man who left the dead body in her house is a real threat, it seems as if the person targeting her friends and family could be someone else. Is it a copy cat or an assistant of the other man?

It’s entirely possible that this book works as a standalone, and that readers who aren’t familiar with the series would find it suspenseful. I’m only not sure that they would care as much about the fate of the characters as someone who has read all or most of the novels. Frieda’s family and friends are important in all of the books. Over the course of the series, Frieda has made new friends and the circle of endearing and quirky characters has grown even more. Putting most of them in harm’s way, was a clever decision. I can’t imagine that anyone liking this series will stay cold reading Sunday Morning Coming Down.

I though that this would be the last of the series but Day of the Dead has just been published. It will be the series’ finale, in which Frieda and her nemesis are pitted against each other.